By Iris Richmond. The time involved in building a customer's dream home presents all-too-frequent opportunities for a builder to disappoint. Whether it be losing a change order, going over budget, or falling behind schedule because a customer couldn't make up his mind, the potential pitfalls are many. But builders are finding ways to avoid them and keep customers contentedly in the loop, from start to finish. Here are four approaches that brought results:

Tech Support

Five years ago, Simonini Builders, in Charlotte, N.C., decided the way to tackle delays in construction was by reducing the amount of paperwork involved. For a cost of roughly $40,000, Simonini developed software to automate its sales system. Consequently, cycle time decreased by a staggering 45 to 60 days. Eager for even more improvement, the company next aims to be paperless throughout the selections phase, as well.

Simonini has nearly 300 options for customers to choose from. Options and upgrades, on average, account for 10 to 15 percent of a home's price, which can range from $400,000 to $4 million. With the recent $100,000 purchase of software developed by custom builders Don and Todd Pohlig, Simonini is also automating its options catalog.

Instead of waiting two or three days to be told the price of, say, putting an extra crown in the secondary bedrooms, customers at Simonini's design center will be able to check the cost in seconds.

"Automation gives us time to be more [attentive to] our customers," says Alan Simonini, president and CEO. "They're not hounding us, we're hounding them, and it gives them the peace of mind that we're on top of it." Customers have shown their appreciation: For the past three years, the builder's customer satisfaction rating has been 100 percent, according to surveys compiled by the consulting firm Woodland and O'Brien.

Providing more personal attention also helps address the difficult job of getting customers to make up their minds about options and upgrades. Two years ago, Simonini stopped designating employees as customer liaisons, removing confusion for customers as to who was their primary contact, the liaison or the project's superintendent. When clients still dallied with their selections, Simonini opted to supply every customer with access to a decorator. The builder, which built 50 homes last year, pays $850 per home for a customer to receive 10 hours with a decorator.

"It pays for itself," says Simonini. "Designers are in and they're out, selections are made, and deadlines are met. A handful of hours keeps the job moving."

Helping Hands

Without options automation, Trendmaker Homes relies on assistance of a human kind. Ranked first in the Houston market last year in customer care by J.D. Power and Associates, the builder cuts delays in the selections process by delegating more responsibility from its sales managers to its 14 sales assistants.

Earlier this year, Trendmaker, which built 580 homes last year, increased assistants' wages, intensified their training, and handed over more responsibilities. They were tasked with making certain that customers meet selection deadlines, which entails being in frequent contact with the customer via e-mails, telephone calls, and face-to-face meetings, and keeping status reports up-to-date.

Sales manager Pam Williamson anticipates that parent company Weyerhaeuser Co. will give Trendmaker the OK to purchase options software later this year. In the meantime, good old-fashioned personal attention to detail is keeping service ratings high.

Up Front

Pulte's Minneapolis division used to have trouble with options that were missing or incorrect. Perhaps the staff made the error; perhaps it was the customer who misunderstood. Either way, the issue had to be resolved. Construction manager Marty Gergen all but eliminated the problem by requiring weekly jobsite meetings between the customer, the salesperson, and the superintendent, starting with a preconstruction session about a week before the foundation goes in.

"It all has to do with expectations, and expectations weren't being clarified," says Gergen, who improved communication not only by bringing together all participants but also by having superintendents sign off on the final list of options. Increasing the number of customer contact points has helped keep buyers in the loop and oversights to a minimum. Buyers get a book detailing the selections process and the schedule, and cuing them about such things as when to talk to lenders.

Scheduled meetings take a bite out of the day for staff and buyers alike, but Gergen says it has solved a lot of issues arising from misunderstandings and caught problems early. Benefits include reduced rework, a drop in cancellations, and improved productivity as fewer phone calls need to go back and forth between sales and the field.

Finishing Touches

Midland Builders, in Madison, Wis., prides itself on connecting with customers during the final leg of the home building cycle. Lasting impressions are the responsibility of the customer care department, formed two years ago.

To accomplish this, the department' s staff of eight relies on surveys customers fill out on day one, which asks them to list personal items such as their favorite beer, shampoo, and laundry detergent. Spending roughly $100 on each of the 250 homes built each year, the department then stocks the fridge, bath, and shelves with those items. On top of that, hand towels are hung in the bathroom and mineral water stored in a cabinet — not for cocktails but for carpet stains.

"We are the home stretch," says Ryan Teasdale, the department president. "We want customers to feel right at home in their new place from the very first moment."

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, August 2002